SOCHI, Russia — Don’t let the final score fool you. This was not a particularly close game. The United States beat Finland, 3-1, Saturday in the first women’s hockey game of the Olympics, but for the really telling stat, one must consider the shots: 43 for the Americans, only 15 for the Finns.
Fifty-three seconds is all it took for U.S. forward Hilary Knight to open the scoring at Shayba Arena, capitalizing on a giveaway to beat the Finns’ superb (and busy) goalie, Noora Raty.
“Obviously, to have an opportunity to score in the first minute of the game sets the tone,” said U.S. coach Katey Stone.
The Americans dominated after Knight’s goal. The score was 3-0 by the end of the second period, with the shots 33-7. The Finns managed a power-play goal late in the third to spoil Jessie Vetter’s shutout bid, but the outcome was all but official by then.
Stone, though, was eager to give her opponent credit.
“They played very well in front of Noora Raty,” she said. “It’s not just about the goaltending. It’s about how well that their team plays in front of her. They made it very difficult for us.”
Stone was also sure to express her belief that the women’s Olympic tournament is a “world event that anyone can win.”
Finland is the third-ranked team in the world, by the way. The U.S. is first, Canada, a 5-0 winners vs. Switzerland on Saturday, is second.
And the competitiveness of the women’s tournament is, of course, a sensitive topic. In 2010, the U.S. and Canada so badly dominated the rest of the teams that then-IOC president Jacques Rogge threatened its place in the Olympics.
“There is a discrepancy there. Everyone agrees with that,” he said. “We cannot continue without improvement.”
Hence, sensitivities to suggestions there hasn’t been enough “improvement” in the “discrepancy” department.
This year’s tournament even has a new, unique format to reduce the number of blowouts – like Canada over Slovakia 18-0, or the United States defeating Russia 13-0 – that occurred in Vancouver.
In Sochi, there’s an A group with the top four seeds (U.S., Canada, Finland, Switzerland) and a B group with seeds 5-8 (Sweden, Japan, Russia, Germany). For the preliminary round, all the teams in the A group will play each other, and all the teams in the B group will play each other. After that, the top two in the A group will get a bye to the semifinals, while the bottom two in the A group and the top two in the B group will meet in the quarters.
It’s extremely unlikely, but theoretically, a team in the A group could lose all three of its preliminary round games and still win the gold medal.
That isn’t how most tournaments work.
U.S. forward Amanda Kessel said Saturday that she doesn’t worry about it.
“I just see all the other teams getting better every year,” she said, “and I think our rivalry with Canada, that just makes people want to watch more.”
U.S. captain Meghan Duggan struck a similar tone.
“To be honest, the media makes it a bigger deal than we do in our locker room,” she said.
But Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser, arguably the greatest women’s hockey player ever, isn’t quite so carefree.
“I think I always worry about the future of women’s hockey, mainly because of the fact that most of the world pays attention to the game only two weeks out of every four years,” Wickenheiser said earlier this week, according to the Globe and Mail. “The tournament has to be competitive, there’s no question, and countries have to show progress. That’s the number one thing.”
Progress, though, is a tough thing to measure, because it’s not like the top two countries are standing still.
“The problem is that Canada and the U.S. continue to improve and it’s harder for the other countries to catch up. So that’s a dilemma that women’s hockey is always going to face,” Wickenheiser said.
“I think the game has really come a long way in the [four] Olympics that we’ve seen.”
The U.S. plays Switzerland Monday before closing out the preliminary round Wednesday versus Canada.